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Our critics weigh in on local theater

Day 19. There's a shroud of mystery around performances of Day 19. There's no phone number to get tickets, only an e-mail address for a gentleman from Poland. The Web site for the Scrap and Salvage theater company profiles the credits of creators James Mulligan (Emerson College theater grad) and Rafal Klopotowski (alum of Dutch experimental theater group Dogtroep), and explains that their brand of performance is "site-specific." This means that each show is completely written and designed only after moving into a random space and getting inspired. One past show was performed on a cargo ship. Day 19's venue is behind a black unmarked door on Kearny, a block from Larry Flynt's Hustler Club. It used to be a hardware store and now feels more like a construction site. Before the performance, Klopotowski explains this show was created in less than a month and is still evolving. The results are varied. For a quick 30 minutes, 16 audience members witness bubblewrap sailboats, romantic dancing with light fixtures, and a head that pops up through the floor to eat carrots and scream. These unconnected moments are wonderfully underscored by shadowy figures playing cello, ukulele, and thumb piano. It certainly is a unique theatrical experience (think perhaps early Blue Man Group), but Day 19 feels too much like a very rough sketch of a show rather than a completed vision. Through March 1 at Mysterious Black Door, 809 Kearny (at Washington), S.F. Tickets are $10; e-mail (Nathaniel Eaton) Reviewed Feb. 20.

Gone. When all the theatrical elements come together, Crowded Fire's production of Charles L. Mee's jagged riff on the state of human nature is truly something to behold. Jarrod Fischer's lighting, Rod Hipskind's set, Cliff Caruthers' sound, and Marissa Wolf's directing create beautiful, miniature worlds that you can't help but be drawn into — such as a breakup structured around the sound of a boiling electric teakettle and lit by a table lamp. It's frustrating that all these little compelling worlds never seem to add up to something whole, remaining a collection of disparate ruminations Mee culled from various found texts, including his own previous plays. But perhaps for Mee this state of disunity is the point, a mirror to the broken images and mashed-up language that comprise our actual lives. So, hey, why not combine a rousing country music number with a dense passage of Proust? While there are times in this 85-minute production when our eyes glaze over and our minds drift, there are also moments when we are given that rare theatrical gift: total immersion in a strange, unfamiliar place that shows us something true about our human selves. Through March 2 at SF Playhouse II, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $15-$25; call 255-7846 or visit (Molly Rhodes) Reviewed Feb. 20.

Shopping! The Musical. The world is made up of two kinds of people — those who like musical revues and those who really, really don't. Writer and director Morris Bobrow's original compilation of song and skits is unlikely to convert anyone, but its 80 minutes are filled with plenty of amusing harmonized insights into everyone's favorite pastime. Who hasn't gritted their teeth at the quasi-ethnic knickknacks at street fairs? And, yeah, what exactly are handling fees? The evening could do with more variety of musical and performance styles; it falls back too often on the softly building show tune and the big-eyed, winking delivery. But as they enter the third year of their run in March, Bobrow and his cast and crew have honed an enjoyable formula that keeps you smiling — if not always singing — along. Ongoing at the Shelton Theater, 533 Sutter (at Powell), S.F. Tickets are $27-$29; call 392-8860 or visit (M.R.) Reviewed Jan. 2.

Sonny's Blues. James Baldwin's short story "Sonny's Blues" uses music as a prism through which to explore issues surrounding cultural roots and race. When the nameless narrator, an upstanding schoolteacher and family man, finds out that his younger brother Sonny, a jazz pianist, has been apprehended by the cops for dealing and using heroin, memories of his own past rush back. The narrator's reminiscences coupled with his evolving relationship with Sonny lead him to acknowledge the "blues" in his own life — and the darkness in society at large — that he had for so long ignored or suppressed. Despite featuring an original score by local jazz luminary Marcus Shelby, Word for Word and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre's verbatim staging of the story suffers from a lack of musicality. Instead of creating tension or otherwise contributing new layers of meaning to the story, the score rarely performs any function other than setting a mood. It doesn't help that the music is recorded rather than played live and that actor Da'Mon Vann, as Sonny, is forced to act as though he's pouring out his soul in some smoky Greenwich Village speakeasy by caressing the surface of a beat-up table. Ultimately, the musicality of Sonny's Blues is right there in Baldwin's words. The staging serves only to impede our ability to hear it. Through March 8 at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $22-$36; call 474-8800 or visit (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Feb. 20.

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